Most people believe that intelligence plays the key role in children's academic achievement. A recent study by Pennsylvania State University researchers, however, found that the ability to self-regulate—to pay attention to a task and inhibit impulsive behavior—was more important than intelligence for early academic success.

The study focused on three- to five-year-olds and showed that preschoolers’ capacity for self-control was the best predictor of their performance in math and reading in kindergarten. Scores on intelligence tests were not as closely correlated with academic achievement.

A child's ability to monitor his or her thinking and behavior develops rapidly during preschool. Psychologist Clancy Blair, who led the study, says that the data give concrete support to preschool programs that focus more directly on self-regulation. “Curricula are needed that provide children with regular activities to decrease impulsiveness and instant gratification and that promote attention and awareness of one's own and others’ thoughts and feelings,” Blair remarks.

Parents interested in boosting their kids’ school readiness should engage them in activities that involve taking turns, paying attention for sustained periods and giving incentives for thoughtful responses, the researchers say.